A collage of a medical diagram, showing the arteries and veins within a human head, adorned with large red and pink roses.
Image credit: “You Got Me Inside Out” by Martine Mooijenkind

Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s winter 2023 issue, “Love as Social Order: How Do We Build a World Based in Love?” 

This article was excerpted from How We Ended Racism: Realizing a New Possibility in One Generation, by Justin Michael Williams and Shelly Tygielski (Sounds True, 2023), with permission. It has been lightly edited for publication here.

An essential conversational skill is knowing the difference between calling forward and calling out. Standing in the future, we can look back and see that one of the things we had to collectively affirm is that we are done with calling people out. Calling out leads to cancel culture; cancel culture is ineffective and divides us further. Today we have to commit to graduating beyond that perspective to move in the direction of our vision, so we can stop fighting against racism and finally end racism. This article will help you learn how to have big conversations when you see or experience someone acting from a state that is causing harm.

First, let’s make some distinctions. In today’s culture, calling out means publicly naming a wrong, an infraction, or a mistake; calling in means naming it privately. The problem with either approach is that both typically get infused with shame, blame, and guilt. It’s well documented in studies in the fields of psychology, anthropology, sociology, and even neuroscience that shaming, blaming, and guilting someone shuts down the center of their brain responsible for learning and growth. Thus, regardless of how much a person meditates or prays, or how emotionally or spiritually evolved they believe they are, if you use the tactics of shame, blame, and guilt, it blocks the ability for the person you are speaking with to actively listen, it stunts the capacity for them to learn, and it eliminates any opportunity for growth. We’ve all experienced this resistance. Think of the last time your partner or a family member said something that triggered you. Regardless of how “right” or “rational” they were, once you were activated by shame, blame, or guilt, all bets were off—you likely ended up reacting.

You can call anyone forward, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to immediately walk toward you. Remember, they may not have the tools yet to do so.

You can usually only come back to the same conversation and see things more clearly after having some time to “cool off,” because your brain has had a chance to regulate. After regulation, we hear things differently; we can see the other side of a perspective and think from a logical place that is responsive rather than reactive. In our movement to end racism, we must not use shame, blame, or guilt—no matter what. Yes, we really mean no matter what. No matter how horrific you think the circumstance is, if you want the situation to transform, then shame, blame, and guilt are off the table.

Here are two questions you can ask yourself as a litmus test prior to having a difficult conversation: Do I want to “be heard” or do I want to be effective? Do I want to create a bridge or widen the divide? Prior to each interaction, you must be brutally honest with yourself about your true intentions because they will impact the outcome of the conversation dramatically. If you are not ready to show up to the conversation without shame, blame, and guilt, you might want to reconsider speaking at all. To end racism, we must use our language to move us in the direction of our vision.

Another part of “calling out” and “calling in” that is rarely discussed is the fact that both of these acts presuppose that the person who is doing the “calling in” or the “calling out” is right: that the person using these tactics is morally superior and that they have the authority to correct another person. This is precisely the reason that we need to be grounded in truth and commit to understanding the difference between stories and facts. If you think your story is “the truth,” then it leaves no room for understanding, discussion, or conversation. It is binary thinking all over again, requiring the person you are disagreeing with to immediately conform to your thinking and behavior. 

Calling forward is a model of communication that we coined several years ago that flips the idea of “calling out” and “calling in” on its head, turning it into something more effective for bringing people together and ending racism. While “calling out” or “calling in” is fighting against what someone did wrong, calling forward is an invitation to be something greater. While calling out/in is fighting against what we hate, calling forward is building upon what we love. Calling forward is inviting people into a greater state of integration and evolution. Calling forward opens the door to real transformation, and we’ve found that the outcome—although not always immediate—is often surprising.

You can call anyone forward, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to immediately walk toward you. Remember, they may not have the tools yet to do so. When using the model we are about to share, often an opening happens where there once was none.

You can ask yourself a few questions while clarifying what you are moving toward: What type of world do I want to live in and how do people in the world treat one another? What values are central to this world?

Use the “Ten Essential Steps to Calling Forward” the next time you need to have a difficult conversation—specifically, when you want to address someone having contributed to the perpetuation of prejudice, discrimination, racism, or othering. Stand in the center of what you believe: that racism can and will end, and that you yourself have the power to end it. Calling forward is a skill we all have the capacity to learn. It starts with you.

The Ten Essential Steps to Calling Forward

As with any conversation, you don’t have control of what the other person does or says, but you do have control over yourself—how you choose to respond and how you show up. These ten steps will prepare you for the best possible outcome. Read the ten steps first, then put them into action using the script.

Step 1: Center in Your Vision

Calling forward is, more than anything, an invitation to something greater. But you can’t invite someone forward if you have no idea where forward is or what you are moving toward. It’s important to always know what you are moving toward before you set off on your journey—that is what the collective vision of ending racism is for. That is the finish line. You can ask yourself a few questions while clarifying what you are moving toward: What type of world do I want to live in and how do people in the world treat one another? What values are central to this world? What do I see as possible in a world without racism? Before you have any conversations, you must remember that the highest possible outcome is that the other person not only sees and acknowledges the mistake they made and harm they caused but also joins you in an elevated state of consciousness. You must approach this conversation from a place of inviting them forward into something you love, not just as an opportunity to call out/in what they did wrong.

Stand in the future, orient yourself toward the vision of the world you want to (co)create, and choose your actions based upon what in the future you would do. If you were standing in the future, where your vision had come true and the person you are going to be speaking with is a part of your vision, how would you handle the conversation and speak in way that took you forward toward that vision? (That’s why it’s called calling forward.) Anchor into this deeply before the conversation even begins. This is key. Otherwise, you risk being on the attack from the first sentence.

Step 2: Drop Your Stories

This is hard for many people, because we believe so deeply in the assessments and stories we’ve made up in our heads about people and situations that we don’t leave space for anyone to show up differently.

We shut the door before they even round the corner. Our stories can block opportunities for connection, because we become convinced that the preconceived stories we’ve made up in our heads about a person are true before the conversation even begins. If you don’t drop your stories, the conversation is doomed from the start.

Remember that we tend to default to assessment-making. Thinking things like “I can’t trust her,” “He isn’t the brightest person,” “This isn’t going to go well,” or “People of that gender always do this” is something that we are hardwired to do. Pause before the conversation starts and get clear on the assessments that are going on in your mind. Those assessments may hinder the success of the conversation. Ask yourself, “What are the stories I’m making up, and what are the facts?”

Remaining committed to understanding the origins of our assessments can ground us in a space that staves off reactivity and allows us to be responsible for our biases and beliefs about how things “should” be. You may not get rid of all of your biases, but you can be responsible for them so they don’t control you.

Step 3: Imagine That This Person’s Actions Were Coming from a Place of Care, Concern, and Love

Even if the person you are speaking with did something you believe is wrong, you cannot approach the conversation from a place of their being a “bad person.” If you do, you’ll immediately begin with shame and blame, and only speak to and activate the place within them that causes harm.

Every person has within them the capacity for “good” and “bad.” You want to prepare yourself to speak to the best part of a person and call that best part of them forward. You do this by trying to imagine yourself in their shoes. This can be incredibly difficult, but here’s a trick: Ask yourself, “If I forced myself to assume this person’s actions were coming from a place of care, concern, and love, then why might they have done what they’ve done?” Most people are not intentionally trying to cause harm. Either way, however, for the purposes of this step, it doesn’t really matter. This step of the process is to prepare you to show up for the conversation as open, grounded, and clear as possible. This step is an essential part of that process.

Step 4: Prepare the Space

Preparing for difficult conversations is like planning a dinner party. It is not acceptable to invite your guests at the last minute to your fancy dinner party and expect them to show up ready to meet your expectations. You must invite people ahead of time, prepare the menu and food, and set the table. You prepare the space. So, too, must we prepare the space for difficult conversations. Often, we’ve spent hours or even days ruminating and preparing ourselves to have a difficult conversation without giving the other person the opportunity to do the same—often springing the conversation upon the other person without giving them a chance to prepare to listen. Getting unexpected feedback is hard for all of us. You may have spent hours mustering up the courage to call someone on the phone, finally ready to spill your heart out, while they may be walking through the grocery store or just getting off of a really tough call with their boss. They may be unable to access their heart to listen to you at that time.

Every calling forward conversation must begin with the words “I feel…” If you start the conversation with “You…” then you’re already down a path to shame, blame, and guilt.

A simple way to solve this is by sending the person a message or giving them more than a moment’s notice that you want to have a conversation about something important. A message saying, “Hey, I’d love to talk to you about something important. Can you chat after work?” or “Do you have the capacity and space to have a discussion at the moment? It’s about something a little sensitive” makes a world of difference. If the wrongdoing happens in the heat of the moment—for example, during a meeting with other individuals—you might say, “After the meeting is over, I’d love to speak with you about this for a few minutes.” More often than not, this is better than letting your emotions take over and flipping out in the middle of the meeting. The primary reason you are doing this is so that when you are ready to speak with that person, they are as ready as they can be to listen. You are inviting them into a conversation.

Step 5: Own Your Feelings

Every calling forward conversation must begin with the words “I feel ” If you start the conversation with “You…” then you’re already down a path to shame, blame, and guilt. When someone or something hurts us, the way we respond is no one else’s choice or fault but our own. Regardless of what another person says or does, you own (and are responsible for) your reaction.

Creating connection and compassion starts with you being vulnerable. Vulnerability is not weakness—it’s your greatest strength, especially in these kinds of conversations.

In these types of conversations, own and name the truth of your emotions first and foremost, and share those emotions with the person you’re speaking with. For example, “I felt hurt and insignificant after the conversation that just happened in the boardroom, and I want to share how affected I am by this.” Notice the word you isn’t in that sentence at all. Calling forward starts with yourself, not the other person.

Step 6: Create a Space of Connection and Compassion

Creating connection and compassion starts with you being vulnerable. Vulnerability is not weakness—it’s your greatest strength, especially in these kinds of conversations. How do you build a space of vulnerability and connection? You begin with sharing your emotions. This is why Step 5 (“Own Your Feelings”) is so important. As soon as you open your heart and allow yourself to be seen emotionally, a space of compassion and vulnerability can be created. For transformation to occur in the most effective way, connection and compassion must be cultivated. Remember, it’s unlikely that the person you’re speaking with will know these steps. Therefore, you are responsible for creating and holding the space of compassion yourself and inviting them to meet you there. The person you are speaking to may not accept your invitation, but the possibility of their accepting it will never happen if you don’t extend the invitation to begin with. As the author and photographer Doe Zantamata once offered, “It’s easy to judge. It’s more difficult to understand. Understanding requires compassion, patience, and a willingness to believe that good hearts sometimes choose poor methods.”1 Judgment leads to separation. Understanding leads to transformation.

Step 7: Paint the Picture of the Vision

Imagine trying to invite someone to a beautiful vacation on a tropical island but only showing them pictures of a volcano erupting or crime, destruction, and violence among the locals. This is what many of us do when we call someone out/in. Don’t focus the bulk of the conversation on everything they did “wrong.” Instead, describe the world they could be living in with you if they chose different actions. Remember, we must remain committed to moving toward solutions rather than continuing to identify and analyze issues. Be specific in your descriptors. Paint a picture of what kind of things we would see in that world. How would people feel? What do you value in your vision?

An example would be: “Uncle Dan, it feels so exciting to me to imagine a world where everyone is safe enough to know that they can love who they want without restriction or fear. Where they can walk down the street and go into any restaurant and feel safe and accepted. Think about your grandkids—I know how much you love them. I have witnessed the way you deeply care for and love them. Wouldn’t you want everyone to treat them that way, even if they made a choice to love someone different from what’s considered status quo? I’m committed to making the world a kinder place, for us now and for our children.” Remember, you’re inviting them in. A part (if not most) of your conversation with this person should be painting the picture of the future you’re inviting them into.

Step 8: Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late

This is big. Most of us wait too long to have these conversations. By the time we do, we’re so filled with resentment and fear that we couldn’t find compassion even if we tried. When you notice that something has become a problem for you, don’t wait until it happens again to bring it up. Avoidance and denial only make things more difficult later. Have the conversation early, before the problem gets too big to handle later or before the other person has long passed.

Step 9: Don’t Arrive with All the Solutions

We often approach these types of conversations with a premeditated idea of what we’d like the outcome to be, leaving no space for collaborative inquiry. If someone says or does something wrong, and you are hoping they rectify or fix it, the best solutions arise when both parties can explore ideas for solutions together. Otherwise, the person you’re speaking with will feel like something is being forced upon them or that you are the moral cop—and that never works in the long run. It often ignites the pattern of shame, blame, and guilt. Forcing your solution onto a person or trying to elicit an action that they aren’t authentically on board with leads to empty actions. We’re playing a bigger game here. We’re going for transformation—and that requires remaining open to the possibility that there are many different doorways into the future you desire, not just one.

Step 10: Don’t Attach Yourself to a Specific Outcome

Sometimes, even after your best efforts, the person you are speaking with is unwilling or not ready to listen. That should not deter you from standing in your truth, oriented toward a collective vision and remaining firm in what you believe in. Think about all the times you’ve had to learn a lesson over and over again before you finally “got it.” Give the person that same measure of grace. We know this can be hard to do when it appears that the person is causing harm. Like a flow of water slowly but consistently carving stone, you never know which conversation is going to forge a new path forward. If you hold a space of compassion, care, and love, the person may at least hear you. It’s not up to you how quickly they transform; it is, however, up to you to create a space where transformation is likely to occur based upon the energy you bring to the conversation. Sometimes people will surprise you. Sometimes they will disappoint you. None of that is up to you. Release yourself from having to control it.

* * *

You may notice that the “Ten Essential Steps to Calling Forward” are more about you than they are about another person. That’s because you cannot take responsibility for what anyone else does, but you can prepare yourself. As a beacon of the end of racism, you are responsible for lighting the path for others, regardless of whether or not someone chooses to walk it with you.

You might be wondering what happens when someone tries to call you out, in, or forward for something you’ve done wrong. All the same steps apply. You get to show up as someone who is practiced and skilled at having these conversations, so that when shame, blame, or guilt arrive in your presence, they get transformed into something greater. Don’t fall into the trap of people thinking they have the right or permission to use harmful tactics, even if you are the one who has caused harm. With all of these tools in your possession, you are well equipped to take greater responsibility, make the vision of ending racism a reality, and play a bigger game. Our culture’s immune system needs healthy cells that can transform these moments into something greater. Be the one who takes the conversation to a new level.



  1. Doe Zantamata, “It’s Easy to ..,” Happiness in Your Life (blog), October 13, 2020, www.thehiyl.com/2020/10/its-easy-to-judge.html.